Pandemics historically linked with violence; India has contained it so far but lack of faith in State, migrant hardships can be tipping point

India is in the midst of its worst public health emergency as it faces the coronavirus pandemic. With over 1200 positive cases reported so far, the country was forced to go under a lockdown, at a time when the economy was already on edge and unemployment numbers were soaring. It was a crisis of previously unimagined magnitude, and likewise, the country responded with unprecedented measures.

The government deployed its resources at war footing to patch up a creaking public health infrastructure, resorted to mass screenings at all entry and exit points of the country and enforced a 21-day restriction on movements of the 1.3 billion-strong population.

While the move to impose a shutdown was the typical response by most governments across the world, especially in the view of a pandemic, in India it meant snuffing out livelihood opportunities for roughly 85 percent of its workforce employed in the unorganised sector. When the prime minister appeared on television screens on 21 March at 8 pm, his speech rendered millions of daily-waged migrant workers jobless with a forewarning of four hours.

This meant that the most vulnerable of India's population, who earn as little as approx Rs 200-300 (roughly $4) for each day's work, were left with no means to get there next day's needs fulfilled. As a result, swathes of migrants were seen trudging home on foot, their home towns hundreds of kilometres away. Several activists have, however, said that lockdown is the only way to restrict the spread of the virus which if unchecked can spiral a rural healthcare crisis.

The government only came out with a relief of promised hike in minimum wage under national employment guarantee scheme and some free food grains after adverse media coverage of the crisis unfolding on India's urban streets.

 Pandemics historically linked with violence; India has contained it so far but lack of faith in State, migrant hardships can be tipping point

Reports of police excesses in efforts to enforce lockdown have flooded social media. News18

The resulting chaos has the law and order situation teetering on the edge.

People do not generally react positively to desperate times and high-handed measures. A crisis situation brings with it crimes like stockpiling of essential goods, corruption and non-adherence to mandatory public orders like curfew restriction, self-declaration of symptoms and travel history and staying under quarantine.

But what is also a real threat is an impending break out of riots and mob-violence.

Forbes article detailing human psychological response to pandemics states that forced confinement triggers all kinds of sensory responses that result in our stress systems firing on all cylinders. From breakouts in jails to people defying curfews, to rioting, are all possible responses as human survival instinct kicking in after citizen liberties are stripped away in an effort to contain the pandemic.

In fact, the article makes a case against lockdowns. According to the article, lockdowns should only be the last resort because a violent response can be triggered and "exacerbated by many of the factors that are present during a pandemic such as lack of trust in government, geographic proximity to others in a similar situation, and a shared purpose and intensity."

Rioting broke out in Italy prisons after lockdown was announced, leaving 13 inmates dead and 59 guards injured across 50 jail sites. Similar reports filtered in from Lebanon, Iran and Colombia. Riots have also upended prisons in Peru and Chile, while five inmates in Venezuela were shot dead in an attempt to escape. The irony of the fact that those whose liberty had already been stripped down were the first to revolt only highlights how much humans hate being in a restrictive environment.

Elsewhere, anger over restrictive measures and anxiety about the coronavirus have led to violence.

A book Disease Control Priorities: Improving Health and Reducing Poverty also links pandemics with outbreak of violence. And the threat is more pronounced in countries with weak institutions and where people mistrust the state.

During the 2014 West Africa Ebola epidemic, steps taken to mitigate disease transmission, such as the imposition of quarantines and curfews by security forces, were viewed with suspicion by segments of the public and opposition political leaders, the paper states. It also amplified political tensions in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, with incumbent politicians accused of leveraging the crisis and disease control measures to cement political control.

Fortunately for India, situation so far hasn't worsened to the extent that riots and public paranoia becomes an imminent threat. But the government needs to stay alert because the phenomenon of riots has been historically linked with pandemics across the world. Mistrust of local cops and public authorities may only add fuel to the fire.

There have been instances of locals violating the curfew, stray instances of stockpiling and breach of law and order, but more vivid and common are reports of police excesses in parts of the country. Videos and photographs of police personnel chasing away people on the roads, who have violated the lockdown, and beating them mercilessly have gone viral.

In Bihar's capital, Patna, police shot a truck driver carrying essential commodities, reportedly after failing to extract a bribe in exchange of a curfew pass, local newspaper reports said.

In Uttar Pradesh, cops made youth hop like frogs for strolling on the road, while migrant workers thronging the Delhi bus terminus were lathicharged for 'mob management'.

Another video, reportedly from Andhra Pradesh has emerged, where policemen are seeing thrashing few boys because they decided to play a game of cards on the roadside.

Reports from Kashmir said police have come down heavy even upon delivery persons, doctors in ambulances, and journalists who ventured out for reporting -- all of whom are exempted from curfew under essential service provider clause.

In Andhra Pradesh, a 21-year-old died while trying to escape the beating by cops after he was found to be part of a village gathering despite curfew orders being in place.

A 32-year-old West Bengal resident's family has alleged he died of police beating after he had stepped out of his house to buy milk during the lockdown.

A Thane resident, enroute Rajasthan to attend his mother's funeral was brutally beaten up for crossing into Gujarat border by the local cops.

Similar cases of police brutality have been reported around the country, and social media is filled with messages highlighting plight of the country's poorest for whom work has dried up and the promised relief package is nowhere in sight.

The high-handedness of officials and negligence of authorities is often the tipping point of protests and unrest. When violence and paranoia is the anticipated psychological response of the people, the government should especially ensure lockdown does not become needlessly punishing for those already struggling to make ends meet.

Updated Date: Mar 31, 2020 21:23:48 IST



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